My Influences: Part 1: ‘Sons and Lovers’ by D.H.Lawrence
Well, I thought I’d have a go at writing some blog posts about those things that have influenced me as a person as well as my creative development. As I thought about this I found myself looking back and asking myself what had really had a big impact on me, what had gotten under my skin and stayed with me. I don’t mean under my skin like a mite, more like…hmmm, I don’t know… perhaps like a hormonal implant; something that sends out messages all over your body and changes the way you feel about the world (yes, okay, I was struggling for an analogy there, but as it happened that one didn’t do toooo badly ;)). I could think of lots of things that I had enjoyed looking at, reading, listening to throughout my life; a string of new discoveries that had all fed into my creative process, but this wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I was looking for those ‘wow’ moments when the light bulb goes on and you either can’t pull yourself away from something or you want to rush out and research everything you can on it.
The first time I remember this happening to me in any kind of serious way was at school when we read D.H.Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ for an English class. Up until that point, we had read lots of books that I will always remember: George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’; Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’; Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’; Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’, and many more, but this book – ‘Sons and Lovers’- changed everything.
“…something more wonderful, less human, and tinged to intensity by a pain…” (Chapter 8, p.192)
Sons and Lovers changed everything because it was the first book that so completely captivated me on an emotional level. I was an exceptionally tortured teen and to find a book that so explicitly expressed all the angst and misery and conflict that I was feeling was a revelation. When I look back I can really only remember scraps of the text. What I remember vividly was the way that I felt while I was reading it. I was so excited to find that passion and intensity and everything I kept locked inside did not just live within me. This writer had expressed it in ways which I felt unable to, had given it a voice at a time when I could not speak. It was not my story but the familiar emotion and inner turmoil flooded from the pages. This separated it from all other books I had ever read.
The experience of reading ‘Sons and Lovers’ taught me something that has been very important within both my creative and personal development: that I don’t have to be afraid of feeling or of expressing my emotions, both uplifting and wounded, of giving them voice through my creativity. Lawrence opened my eyes to the value of works that reach into this emotional space, for the artist’s benefit but also because someone who feels locked inside themselves might see it or read it or listen to it and, just as I did, feel a release, a sense of their own emotion being given voice. A person might, in their inner experience of a work of art, feel understood and connected when the world around them leaves them feeling alienated, marginalised or set apart.
For me this realisation has not meant spilling my guts to the world at times when I have felt intensely vulnerable and thin-skinned. I have created many very personal pieces of work, but many of them may never find their way into the eye-line of spectators; others have been selectively shared; still others may find their way into a more public place when I am ready and not before. I feel protective of them. They are my child’s first words; the long awaited voice that finally made it into the world, screaming its head off. However, I am conscious that if it hadn’t been for Lawrence and his willingness to lead me to the edge of that deep dark pool, had he not encouraged me to leap in and swim down, then I may never have found my way to that outlet, and my river could not have found its channel to flow onwards.
When ‘Sons and Lovers’, a semi-autobiographical work was submitted for publishing in 1913, it was not received well. Presented as it was, in a much more restrained society than nowadays, it was rejected for publishing several times on the grounds of propriety and also because the treatment of the mother figure within the book heavily challenged social taboos. However, the author defended it fiercely as he recognised that the work did not just draw on his own experience. He believed that it spoke about the ‘tragedy of thousands of young men in England’, those tragedies which went unseen because of society’s rule that nobody should speak about them.
If we look at the work of modern artist Tracey Emin we find similar attitudes still raising their heads. Her work tends to be a bit of a marmite thing – everyone I’ve ever spoken to about her either loves it or hates it. I’m in the camp of loving it :), but again this is because she, like Lawrence, has the courage to lay those dark places of personal human experience out in front of us and speak about them through her art. To many people this is shocking and she has been derided for both the content and mode of expression of some of her work, possibly the most famous example being the Turner-prize runner-up ‘My Bed’:
However, the fact that an artist’s work shocks us or makes us uncomfortable is not the same as an artist setting out with the sole intention to shock. Equally, an artist expressing themselves in a language that we do not understand, whether that be visual, written, musical, or any other medium, is not the same as their words being meaningless.
When we make judgements on such work, when we call it ‘self-obsessed’ or ‘narcissistic’, are we saying that those artists who work in this ‘confessional’ style across many different creative mediums should pretend to be someone else? To be someone who has not had the disturbing experiences they feel moved to unlock and speak about? Should such artists hide all those things in their lives which make other people feel uncomfortable: sex, abuse, mental illness? Should they collude with society in keeping these things as unspoken and hidden and taboo? And if we think they should then are we not hopelessly hypocritical as we lap up articles in the press on these subjects; articles that have been written from an impersonal perspective in a style of scandal-mongering, focussed on the most crass aspects of any given issue? Why are we happy to consume these words over breakfast, to respond to them with ‘oh, isn’t it terrible…’ or some other semblance of compassion, but create negative labels to attack the creative voice of someone who has actually lived through the experiences they describe, when they dare to speak about them authentically?
So what do you think? Should an artist’s expression of their own life experiences be censored because it challenges the view of reality and emotional comfort of others? Or is this at least part of what art is for? To encourage us to look more closely at the world and experience it in new ways, through the eyes of others, their experiences and visions? We can remain rigid, choose to react with shock, anger or fear and then blame the artist for our discomfort, or we can look at something that is outside of our own experience and expand our understanding of the world we live in.